Islamic Science vs. Today’s Islam
There seems to be an, in my opinion, unfortunate counter-reaction to the Muslims’ apologia as to the Islamic origins of modern science. Fearing (rightly) that that apologia is a justification for Muslims to regard modern Western science and technology as being actually theirs, and therefore yet another reason why they are entitled to institute their laws upon the West, the non-Muslim response has been to discredit the history of Islamic science entirely, not granting the Muslims of the 9th to 15th centuries even the slightest achievement in any field of sciences. While the Muslims’ insistence on the indebtedness of all modern science is unwarranted, the non-Muslim reaction is overblown as well. I wish to show here why there is no damage done in granting past achievements in science in the Islamic world, and more: why, far from justifying the Islamic aggression and imperialism of today, the achievements of the past are an argument damning to current Islam.
We have probably heard that zero is a Hindu invention, only taken over by the Muslims. Still, I have no problem acknowledging the contributions to mathematics made by Muslims after taking that invention from the Hindus, in the fields of algebra, algorithms (both with the Arabic definite article) and others. The fact that those achievements are now material for introductory courses in the history of science, while present-day advances in science are the provenance of the non-Muslim West, speaks volumes about the state of Islam today. Islam in the news of today, even in dhimmi outlets like AP and Reuters, consists in geopolitical conflicts and terrorist attacks, not in reports on the high standards of Islamic centers of learning or the steady flow of new patents from the Muslim world. The torch of doing science has wholly passed from the Islamic world to the West. I’d like to elaborate on the nature of that torch.
On one visit to a Christian young-earth creationism website, I read a statement that the proponents (of full Genesis literalism) had no problem with “operational science”, only with “theoretical science”. By the former they mean “the science that cures diseases or put a man on the moon”, and by the latter, “speculations about the past, origins theories, research of unrepeatable events”. They’re OK with science bringing them the benefits of high technology, but they don’t want science going to those areas where the Bible touches natural facts such that there is a conflict between science and their reading of the text. In that, they and modern Muslims are like peas in a pod.
Let this first point be made: the distinction between “operational science” and “theoretical science” (as a formal distinction, between two kinds of science) is nowhere to be found in mainstream scientific literature. It is purely the creation of those who have a bone to pick with the findings of mainstream science. Those who view certain natural facts in their scriptures as foundational to their faith will sink into the quagmire of an exercise of science-denial similar to historical revisionism. (Of course, this is not to exonerate those materialists who say, “Science proves there is no G-d” or “There is no scientific evidence for G-d”—overreach in the other direction.) The religious believer who can let go of such interpretations when they aren’t foundational will have no problem joining the standpoint of mainstream science, according to which science is a search for knowledge about the natural world and models to explain the facts in front of us. From this standpoint, the difference between “operational science” and “theoretical science” is seen for the chimera it is.
Science requires sticking to its methodology (falsifiability, the assumption of uninterrupted natural law and a few other rules); other than that, anything goes. We want science to give us practical benefits, but it must be made clear that putting science in the straitjacket of bringing us practical benefits (which is what those young-earth creationists mean by “operational science”) is detrimental to the practice of science as a whole, and therefore ends up diminishing the cherished practical benefits.
An example: in the 19th century, British mathematician George Boole engaged in the purely theoretical exercise of reducing any proposition to a series of true/false statements. We’d call it a leisurely exercise; one could be excused for telling Boole he was wasting his time. Yet in the next century, engineer and mathematician Claude Shannon used Boole’s system as the basis for digital computing, and it is no exaggeration to acknowledge the debt of all our modern digital technology to Boole’s “pointless” theoretical exercise. It took Shannon to make it practical, but Boole’s theoretical system is the bedrock of the machine I’ve typed this post on.
A scientifically-advanced society, then, is one where all of science is given a free hand, without that “operational science vs. theoretical science” nonsense. The Muslim world had that in the past, it doesn’t have it now, the West has it now. When we read of Alhazen’s treatise on optics, we can see he dwelt on the subject far beyond the practical needs of doctors for eye treatment. He ran wild, supporting his arguments with observations but letting the facts take him anywhere—and that is science. That’s how scientists in the West today work.
What about the Muslim world today? It has sunk to a Koranic literalism that holds that book to make scientific inquiry upon the natural world superfluous. The Muslim leaders of today stare at Western science with a jealous eye not for itself but for its benefits. They approve of advancing the state of scientific research in their countries only for the purpose of making those countries stronger—and that, mainly with regard to weaponry. They encourage rocket scientists for developing more lethal rockets, not for exploring outer space, and nuclear scientists for making atom bombs, not for electricity. They have no interest in, for example, the structure of the DNA molecule, and will have none unless they see a prospect of genetically engineering superior jihad fighters. Both “theoretical science” and “operational science” are already contained in the Koran, they believe, so science, to them, consists only in the “operational” part of using it to further the Koran’s instruction for Islamic law to dominate the world. It can therefore be hardly said that the practice of science exists in the Muslim world today. With science a lowly handmaiden of the jihad, it is no wonder the Muslim world can boast of nothing but a glorious past, and eye the present with rage at non-Muslims having surpassed it. Here is another of the “roots of Muslim rage”, and like the rest of them, a self-inflicted predicament, a grievance but not a legitimate one.
It is not the Crusaders nor the Zionists who are to blame for the sorry state of science in the Muslim world today. The Muslims may say colonialist oppression and their resistance to it are sapping any scientific resources they have, but that is an erroneous argument. The state of Israel has been on a war footing for nearly each decade since its independence, and has to allot large sums to its defense budget, yet the universities of Israel do science, and have produced world-renowned scientists and inventions. The collective resources of the Muslim world, what with their petrodollars and all, are far greater than those available to the 22,000 square kilometer large Zionist state. In the light of this, it is clear Muslims have no-one to blame but themselves for their backwardness. But self-examination is too much to expect of those who are driven to rage by a 14th-century quote of a Byzantine emperor taken out of context.
They want their glory days back. I am sympathetic. But they doom themselves to failure by setting the restoration of the geopolitical state of those glory days—the worldwide Caliphate—as a precondition for the return of the scientific lead. That is why they don’t do science, they do appropriation of Western technology for the sake of the jihad. That is why CAIR has to work at building a positive image of Islam, while the negative image comes naturally, even through the filters of our OrwellMedia, simply because the Muslims are exerting efforts at achieving geopolitical supremacy on expense of self-treatment. I think Charles Martel’s defeat of the Muslims at Tours (732) was good for Islamic science, because it forced them to relinquish the military expansion efforts and focus on internal building instead. Appeasement fuels their thirst for lands and shariah law; the opposite of appeasement is needed to force them to look inside themselves and realize that the return of their scientific glory days can be brought only by coming back to Alhazen’s free-running spirit.
Pope Benedict XVI has wisely opened a route for self-examination and reform for the Muslims. That they have responded to it by riots and killings and demands for apologies means that they have no right to complain about their undesirable state.
UPDATE (September 25, 19:33): Following a comment to this post, I have added a small clarification as to which distinction between “operational science” and “theoretical science” is foreign to mainstream science.